Japan is one of the liveliest yet most spiritual countries in the world. With a vibrant mix of high-rise filled cities, imperial palaces, spiritual temples, pop culture and sushi, there is a large mix of things to do, suitable for everyone. When travelling, it is important to stay safe and remain on guard. When travelling around Europe it is imperative that visitors carry around a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). Outside of the EU in countries like Japan, it is advised to take out comprehensive medical insurance before travelling, as EHIC’s are not valid. If you’re travelling to Japan this year, we have a guide of where to eat and where to go while you’re there, so you can plan for a trip of a lifetime.
Where to go
Tokyo – Japan’s bustling capital known for its neon skyscrapers and anime shops should be the first stop on any visit to Japan. Visiting the Tokyo Imperial Palace will be a visit to remember with its large park area surrounded by moats and massive stone walls. Guided tours are offered of the palace grounds, although no buildings are entered and the Imperial Palace East Gardens are open to the public throughout the year except on Mondays, Fridays and on special occasions. Exploring the world’s most populous metropolis for its seemingly unlimited choice of nightlife, restaurants, shopping and entertainment is a must. There are also many shrines to visit in order to experience some of Japan’s spiritual culture in Tokyo such as the Yasukuni Shrine which is dedicated to the deities of Japan’s war dead. If you’re looking for the seasonal, infamous cherry blossom, then one of the many gardens around Tokyo should provide you with its beauty – as long as you’ve chosen the right time of year. Koishikawa Korakuen has some of the most beautiful cherry blossom on show during the spring, and this landscape garden is located next to the Tokyo Dome.
Kyoto offers a more cultural side to Japan, away from the bustling metropolis of Tokyo. Featuring Shinto shrines, traditional wooden houses and thousands of classical Buddhist temples such as Sanjusangen-do, home to the 1001 Kannon statues, Kyoto is one of the most peaceful parts of Japan. If you’re looking for a side of nature, Arashiyama is a district on the outskirts of Kyoto, and features an abundance of monkeys, as well as a bamboo forest.
No trip to Japan is complete without a trip to Mount Fuji and Hakone National Park. The majestic, active volcano has been a dominant figure in Japanese art across the ages. There are often many tours that can take you up to Mt. Fuji’s 5th station for breathtaking views above the clouds as well as a cruise on Lake Ashi and a ride on the Komagatake Ropeway.
Where to eat
One of the most remarkable things about Japan is that people think it is rude to eat on the streets, so you’re highly unlikely to find many street stalls for you to sample Japanese cuisine like you would in countries like Thailand. In addition to this, many restaurants are very one dish focused, so if you’re looking for a lot of variety in one place, then you’re going to need to look quite closely – you don’t want to end up in a restaurant serving just about the only dish that you don’t like, and only different variations of that dish.
If you’re visiting Tokyo as a part of your trip to Japan, then there’s a vast range of dishes to try. As you probably already know, sushi is the national dish and is served everywhere from casual pubs to gourmet restaurants. Tokyo is a culinary leader in Japan and you can find more or less every cuisine you could want here. Ramen Street, located inside Tokyo’s train station, is often considered to serve the best tsukemen and ramen in the city and is both a local and tourist favourite. One of the best rated restaurants is considered to be Rokurinsha Tokyo and is relatively budget-friendly.
If sushi is what you’re looking for in Tokyo, then a visit to the fish market early in the morning is a must. As well as being an exciting (all be it quite foul-smelling) experience, there’s no better place to get really fresh sushi. Prices vary depending on which restaurant you visit at the fish market and it is recommended to get there early to catch the best of the action – usually by about 5am. However, if you want to catch the tuna action, start lining up at 2.30am. The sushi restaurants at the fish market might not be fine-dining, or the best in Tokyo, but as a whole experience it is very worth the visit.
If you’re interested in fine dining whilst in Tokyo, then the Kozue at Park Hyatt Hotel is easily one of the best, with an incredible view above the city that can feature Mount Fuji on a clear day, and a sophisticated ambiance. This restaurant is good for entertaining or business, or simply for an upmarket meal, with its extensive sake/cocktail menu and traditional Japanese food.
Kyoto is also full of culinary gems, hidden away from the capital. If you’re after an authentic dining experience then Kyoto is one of the places that you should be looking for. Chihana is a restaurant that has become a prime destination for Japanese foodies, specialising in Kaiseki – a Japanese haute cuisine, using only the finest ingredients and utensils to prepare its delicious menu. There’s also a chance to experience a traditional Japanese tearoom, in the heart of the Geisha district. Kagizen tearoom stands out because of its incredible mochi and delicate wagashi – traditional Japanese sweets, usually served with tea which is prepared from traditional recipes. The tearoom is a favourite due to its delicious pastries and tea as well as the tranquil atmosphere that it offers.
There is possibly one exception to the eating on the streets rule, although you might still attract some unwanted attention if you do. Nishiki market in Kyoto is a 400 year old iconic market, with easily some of the best traditional food you can find. Stalls sell everything from grilled squid to omelettes, sugar fruit, rice balls and much more. The attention to detail and presentation of food, as much as the food itself, is what has given Japan its reputation as one of the best culinary cultures in the world.